Ojima is renowned for his work in the research and development of Taxol. The widely used anticancer drug was derived from the Pacific yew, a tree found in temperate rain forests. (Plants from the same genus have also been used.)
In the Madagascar drug-discovery project, Madagascan scientists will collect and dry specimens of medicinal plants identified by traditional healers. The botanical samples will be given to chemists at Madagascar's University of Antananarivo and the Malagasy Institute for Applied Research. The chemists will extract ingredients and conduct preliminary tests for active compounds.
Information on active compounds will be entered into a shared database, and promising extracts will be sent to researchers at the Institute of Chemical Biology and Drug Discovery on Long Island for further analysis and potential drug development.
Researchers will first focus their efforts on developing drugs based on well-known and widely-used traditional treatments for the common cold and malaria.
"We believe there is a relatively high probability for us to discover an excellent antimalarial drug or its lead compound from our endeavor," Ojima said. (Taxonomists have identified more than 300 plant species that traditional healers say are effective against the disease.)
Ojima is also optimistic that the project will discover compounds that can be developed into new drugs that fight AIDS, cancer, bacteria, and asthma.
The chemist concedes that creating blockbuster drugs like Taxol from botanical compounds is rare. But "when it happens, the impact is huge," he said.
Stony Brook researchers are currently negotiating agreements with Madagascan associates to protect their intellectual property rights and to guarantee they share in any profits derived from the project.
"Our long-term relationship with local villagers has been built on a foundation of mutual respect and trust, and we are being meticulously careful to ensure this project reinforces that relationship," Wright said.
Madagascan scientists are being trained to actively participate in the drug discovery program. The team is also working with locals to develop project-related enterprises to provide short-term economic benefits, such as establishing plant nurseries where medicinal plants can be grown for market and tourism, Wright said.
The University of Antananarivo has already received substantial funding to set up a laboratory for this project, according to Ojima.
Meanwhile contracts for intellectual property rights management are expected to be in place this month, Wright said. "Then the project will be on the ground."
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